The words of a marriage ceremony describe what is happening ("Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today...") and how it's going to work (the vows). My husband and I, like most Europeans and an increasing number of Americans, had two marriage ceremonies, a legal process at the county courthouse and then a spiritual/social wedding celebration. We got the contractual issues buttoned up at our legal ceremony, so we felt free to be more creative on our big wedding day.
Instead of repeating our courthouse vows or writing additional vows, we decided to express why we had already committed the rest of our lives to each other. We used English-translated passages by Spanish poet Pablo Neruda to illustrate the story of our relationship leading up to the joyous celebration of our union in the springtime of the year and of our life together.
The Magic Words
Love is free. So is expressing it in words.
All brides, regardless of budget, can bring beauty, uniqueness, and meaning to a wedding with thoughtfully written vows or other ceremonial words. Christian couples most often choose Bible verses, but my husband and I are non-theists who practice zazen. The minister gave us her blessing with a combination of Unitarian Universalist and Buddhist rites.
For us, the wedding was about celebrating a pact that had already been made and is constantly growing and evolving. He and I had been friends since we were kids, lovers for years, and legally married for eighteen months. The language of specific promises and "I pronounce thee man and wife" did not fit naturally into our ceremony. Instead of reciting vows to each other, we read love poetry by Pablo Neruda to express how we felt at that moment.
The words we chose felt honest and right... if a bit unconventional. I read the poem "Love," including the lines,
Of everything I have seen, it's you I want to go on seeing;
of everything I've touched, it's your flesh I want to go on touching.
I love your orange laughter.
I am moved by the sight of you sleeping.
Instead of having love defined for us that day ("Love is patient, love is kind, etc.") I used words that reflected the present reality of the two of us loving each other.
I don't know how others love, or how people loved in the past.
I live, watching you, loving you.
Our wedding party had not heard what we were going to read ahead of time, so their reactions were moving and spontaneous. Our words created a mood of excitement, passion, sincerity, and a bit of whimsical fun. When the groom read his piece, excerpts of "Every Day You Play," the maid of honor blushed so hard she hid her face behind her tulips!
His poem was as personal as mine.
You are like nobody since I love you.
Let me spread you out among yellow garlands.
...I love you, and my happiness bites the plum of your mouth.
How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me,
my savage, solitary soul,
my name that sends them all running.
...My words rained over you, stroking you.
A long time I have loved the sunned mother-of-pearl of your body.
I go so far as to think that you own the universe.
...I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains,
bluebells, dark hazels, and rustic baskets of kisses.
I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.
Whatever your deepest values, religious beliefs, and feelings about your marriage, be authentic to them. I was a bit nervous about reading such things in front of "God and everybody," including both of our relatives, but everything we said was beautiful and true. And besides, we needed to get some of the pearl-clutching out of the way to prepare our more repressed guests for the kind of reception we were about to unleash! We needed to lay it down from the start: We're here, we're not especially queer, but our reception might be, because we're not squares, get over it or get outta here before you have a stroke.
I've emphasized that a wedding is about the whole community, not just the couple, and yet the couple is the center. At its best, a contemporary wedding invites the guests inward and onward. Sometimes they are challenged, lovingly, to stretch their comfort zones and open their minds and hearts.
You are never obligated to be dishonest or silent about your love at your wedding to ensure the comfort of your guests. You should accommodate your guests' needs, and you should consider their feelings to an appropriate extent, but you should never accommodate anyone's bigotry or oppressive judgments about romantic love. Steamroll that nonsense hastily and with a smile. My mother's parents are weirdly Puritanical German Catholics who expect wedding ceremonies to reassure the guests in Christian code language and signs that the couple has not yet had sex, and that they are getting married for sacramental religious reasons and not because they are already in a normally expressed adult romantic relationship, and that they will only endure sex henceforth to produce babies for Jesus. My husband and I took a hard turn away from that kind of language on purpose.
My grandparents didn't approve of anything at all about my wedding, so I knew that I was free to give up trying to please them. I also knew they wouldn't be bold enough to turn their passive aggression into active aggression if I managed not to acknowledge it while expressing true and gracious appreciation for their presence. Anyway, they were too hard of hearing to be sure about what we'd read out loud and too prudish to ask anyone for clarification. And by the time my grandfather cornered me to grumble a backhanded compliment, I couldn't be hurt by it because he had pink frosting on his face while he said it. Old people cannot resist baked goods. They're like geriatric kryptonite.
Anyway, there are many sayings, proverbs, and definitions of "what love is." But many of them contradict each other, and any of them can be used disingenuously and manipulatively, and none of those axioms can authentically describe all people or all couples. Seal your bond with the words that speak for your particular love and your personal truth, and you will have a ceremony to remember with tenderness and pride.